In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion

By Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2013 | Go to article overview

In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion


Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion. Edited by John R. McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012. vii + 256 pp. $22.95 hardcover.

In the Words of Frederick Douglass is a collection of approximately seven hundred quotations from one of the most famous African American leaders of the nineteenth century. According to the editors, John R. McKivigan (the Project Director and Editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers) and Heather L. Kaufman (a research assistant on the editorial staff of the Frederick Douglass Papers), the specific quotations that they decided to showcase are "representative of the breadth and strength of his [Douglass'] intellect and interests as well as the eloquence with which he expressed them" (xix). McKivigan and Kaufman carefully selected quotations that they believe speak to a wide range of important issues germane to U.S. history and African American life and culture from the late years of the antebellum era until the mid-1890s. They also suggest that "Frederick Douglass's words have at least as much relevance to twenty-first-century readers as those of the first generation of American founders" (xviii).

McKivigan and Kaufman sub-divide the numerous quotations of varying lengths into 113 logical topics conveniently presented in alphabetical order from "Abolition" to "Women," more than a few of which have sub-categories. Spanning from the early 1840s until 1894, the quotations are extracted from various speeches, correspondences, editorials, essays, and his three widely read autobiographies. The shortest quote, from a speech in 1880, is four words in length and sounds like an African proverb on patience: "Great bodies move slowly" (231). The longest quote is twenty-seven lines from an 1844 letter to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison reflecting upon to the hypocrisy of segregation in northern churches.

In addition to containing profound quotations from Douglass, In the Words of Frederick Douglass includes a "Foreword" by Douglass scholar John Stauffer, a "Preface," a straight forward introductory sketch of Douglass' life and work, a brief chronology, a "Note on Editorial Method, a selected bibliography, and an index. Stauffer praises McKivigan's and Kaufman's volume and comments on the "silencing" and canonization of Douglass' thought during the twentieth century. Further, he believes that by reading Douglass' words, Americans could be motivated to change the world they live in. "Douglass' words continue to serve as inspiration," Stauffer observes, "Indeed they can inspire us, as readers and citizens, to bind up the nation's wounds, complete the unfinished work, and finally fulfill the ideas of freedom and equality of opportunity for all Americans" (xiv). The editors share these sentiments, concluding that Douglass' ideas are "relevant to the struggles for liberty and equality still being waged today" (37).

In the "Preface," the editors stress the usefulness of Douglass's observations to its readership in the new millennium; contextualize his position within the basics of black leadership history; and summarize the expansive body of writings that Douglass produced primary during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the brief introduction, McKivigan and Kaufman offer a succinct overview of Douglass' "remarkable life story" from his birth in February 1818 on a Maryland tobacco plantation until his death in the nation's capital on February 20, 1895. The editors demonstrate how Douglass was molded by various contexts and monumental events, including the institution of slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the first decade of the Progressive era, "the nadir" for African Americans. After formally joining the abolitionist movement two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass soon developed into a multi-faceted and, in fact, a quintessential universal reformer, human rights activist, and politician who wore many hats and embraced many causes. …

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